Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture was launched in 1996 by Lisa Jervis, Benjamin Shaykin, and Andi Zeisler. High-school pals and recent college graduates Lisa and Andi were both pop culture obsessives with a particular jones for magazines—both were interns at the legendary Sassy magazine in the early 1990s—as well as feminists constantly on the lookout for sharp, fun, nonacademic analyses of the sexism rampant in movies, television, advertising, and more. As frustrated readers as well as aspiring writers, they looked around at a landscape of self-published zines and, in classic let’s-put-on-a-show fashion, decided that if they wanted to see some smart analysis of feminist pop culture, they could start by writing it themselves. Bitch was born, and, 18 years later, its goals—to point out the insidious, everyday sexism of popular culture, propose alternatives, and celebrate pro-woman, pro-feminism pop products—are still as crucial as they were in 1996.
Bitch: the timeline
1995: The idea for Bitch is hatched as Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler reach a boiling point after one too many copies of Esquire and episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210. They decide that perhaps other fed-up, pop-culture-obsessed feminists might like to read their rantings. They type up a bunch of stuff and enlist high-school friend and Mother Jones employee Benjamin Shaykin to lay it out on his Mac and add punny headlines.
1996: The first issue is printed at Berkeley’s Krishna Copy store. 300 copies are distributed out of Lisa’s 1977 station wagon, Scooter. Lisa scours the Rolodex at her PR temp job and sends copies to fancy-sounding journalistic types around the company. One of these folks, at the Chicago Tribune, actually writes up the first issue, calling Bitch a “breath of journalistic fresh air blowing through the newsstand.” Lisa and Andi are flattered, particularly because both are graduates of liberal-arts colleges and know diddly about professional journalism.
1997: Bitch’s fifth issue—the first with a color cover—is published. The Nation quotes Andi in an article about the Spice Girls and “girl power;” Spin magazine calls Bitch “the best-written and edited girlcentric zine around.” In other news, Bitch’s soon-to-be nemesis Jane magazine launches, providing vast amounts of editorial fodder.
1998: Bitch gets an actual office space, setting up shop in San Francisco’s Mission District next to a Chinese-food-and-doughnuts place. (Basically, everything there tastes like doughnuts.) The magazine’s print run breaks the 5,000 mark; meanwhile, the Bitch website launches. Lisa and Andi publish a parody of Jane’s “Vacation” feature based on their trip to the strip mall up the street. In a somewhat more controversial move, we also publish an editor’s-letter picture of Lisa with some guy’s butt on her head.
1999: Bitch attempts to snag two longtime crushes, Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho, for interviews in the magazine. Failure results on both counts. We decide to apply for 501(c)3 status, which would allow the magazine to incorporate as a nonprofit. Much tedious paperwork ensues.
2001: Lisa and Andi decide to take the plunge, quit their day jobs, and do Bitch full-time. Ben leaves the magazine for swankier, better-paying design pastures, but his influence remains in copious amounts of white space and a list of hilarious-only-to-the-founders titles for future stories, like “Dirty Danson.” (“You know, if we ever interview Ted Danson….”) Sarah Crumb, Bitch’s first-ever subscriber, steps in as art director, and longtime reader and contributing smartypants Rachel Fudge joins us as senior editor. Bitch officially becomes a nonprofit organization, and begins to pay staff and publish quarterly; the print run jumps to 35,000. First big-name interviews are scored: bell hooks, Lynda Barry, Allison Anders, the Guerilla Girls. In other news, staff members plotz when we receive a piece of fan mail from horn-rimmed radio hottie Ira Glass.
2002: Bitch gets in trouble with both readers and the U.S. Postal Service thanks to a back-cover ad featuring a big purple dildo. Pro- and anti-dildo letters flood into the office for more than a year. The era of speedy art-director turnover begins when Sarah moves to New York and young designer/prog-rock enthusiast Briar Levit takes her place. The magazine leaves its fragrant corner of San Francisco behind and moves to a roomier office across the bay in downtown Oakland, where we are mere blocks away from DeLauer’s 24-hour newsstand/magazine mecca.
2003: Margaret Cho’s people relent and finally let us interview her. She does not disappoint.
2004: Bitch’s staff of full- and part-timers grows to a whopping seven, including circulation and outreach manager Cheryl Taruc, as well as our first vegan, associate publisher Debbie Rasmussen. Suddenly, we all feel a little weird about the volume of sugary snacks in the office. Briar leaves for London to get her Master’s degree in design, and Andrea Feldman steps into the revolving door of art directors. In other news, we get our first piece of hate mail from a famous person: Susan “Stop the Insanity!” Powter. The subject line is “Assed fucked by Bitch magazine”, and we almost delete it because it looks like spam. Ms. Powter writes back to clarify that she meant to write “Ass fucked.”
2005: Bitch publishes its second Masculinity issue, this time featuring a urinal on the cover. Also on the cover are the words “cock rock,” which prompts certain bookstores and newsstands to refuse to display the issue. We persuade gender/queer theorist Judith Halberstam to write a piece on masculinity for the issue—it’s the first and last time anyone enthuses over Dude, Where’s My Car? in the magazine’s pages. Elsewhere, we start to worry that Bitch is becoming the Spinal Tap of magazines when we have to find yet another art director. This time, we return to our roots and hire a dude, Nicholas Brawley.
2006: Bitch turns 10 years old and celebrates with a year full of parties, fundraisers, and the publication of the anthology BitchFest: 10 Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine. Lisa and Andi embark on a long and fun book tour during which they meet scads of longtime supporters and contributors and get to hang out in independent bookstores across the country. The tour is marred only by the number of times we are pressed to answer the questions, “So, what about that name?”, “So, can men read this magazine?”, and the always prizewinning “Do you hate men?” Lisa steps down as publisher and Debbie takes over the reins. Oh, and our art director quits and is replaced by former art director Briar, now armed with an advanced degree.
2007: Bitch tries to beat the high cost of living by moving from Oakland to Portland, OR, home to our favorite purveyors of reading material (Powell’s City of Books, In Other Words, Reading Frenzy, Herbivore) and an all-around rad place to live. Our transition is made easier by the warm and enthusiastic welcome from Portlanders. We’re thrilled to add two new staff members–Miriam Wolf as managing editor, and Amy Williams as development/outreach coordinator. In other news, Jane magazine folds, which is not as sad as the many other independent magazines that also folded this year.
2008: Bitch launches the lecture series Feminist Perspectives in Pop Culture with funding from the Oregon Council for the Humanities, bringing feminist heroines like Susie Bright and the Guerrilla Girls live and in person to delight Portland audiences. Our new and improved website debuts. And the staff continues to expand with the addition of Development Director Jaymee Jacoby and Operations Director Brian Frank, who is passionate about two things—sandwiches, and deciphering the arcane minutiae of magazine circulation.
2009: Bitch officially renames itself Bitch Media, the better to emphasize that it is a nonprofit multimedia organization and not just a magazine. After a long period of transition, Bitch Media welcomes its first Executive Director, Julie Falk, and starts doing all kind of nonprofit-y things like strategic planning, board development, and applying for grants to expand programming. Meanwhile, the magazine is redesigned and color is added to each issue, and our new online staff Kjerstin Johnson and Kelsey Wallace institute a successful guest-blogging program and a number of podcasts.
2010: Through Mad World: Gender, Advertising, and Identity in a Mediated World, an eight-month long program (funded by Oregon Humanities), we explores the many facets of gender and advertising. We are recognized for our multimedia approach to pop culture critique by being named one of Access PR’s top 50 influential women’s blogs. Bitch establishes its Community Lending Library, a local resource that features books on everything from feminist theory and queer studies to pop-culture history and young adult literature. To run the library and other outreach efforts, Ashley McAllister comes on board. In other staffing news, longtime art director Briar Levit leaves for a teaching position at Portland State University, and Bitch Media is joined by Kristin Rogers Brown, an illustration professor and art director for Portland magazine The Bear Deluxe. In service-journalism news, the website kicks off its now-annual version of a holiday gift guide by releasing a video titled—with apologies to Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg—”Bitch in a Box.” It’s pretty special.
2011: We celebrates our 15th anniversary with a “Sweet 15” art show and party at Portland’s brand-new “maker space” ADX! Other milestones of the year include the start of Bitch book clubs, and the production of digital editions of the magazine for environmentally minded readers who prefer PDFs to paper. We host events at the Bitch office with Susie Bright, Fatemeh Fakhraie, and Anne Elizabeth Moore. Plus, after years of being the Susan Lucci of the Utne Independent Press Awards (always nominated, never winning), Bitch travels to San Francisco to be honored for Best Social/Cultural Coverage. Also, Feminism and Pop Culture by cofounder Andi Zeisler comes in at #33 on Ms. magazine readers’ 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time.
2012: There’s a new head Bitch in charge: Kjerstin Johnson, who started at Bitch in 2008 as an intern, takes the helm of the magazine as founding editor while Andi Zeisler steps back to work on other projects. Meanwhile, Kate Lesniak joins the staff as Development Director, bringing an enthusiasm for cold-call fundraising honed by working with Howard Dean’s Vermont-based Democracy for America. Bitch’s programming continues to grow: Oregon Humanities funds the program Beyond Judy Blume, which looks at the diversity of young-adult literature via a program of book clubs, blogs, and community forums; Bitch also partners with Mississippi Studios for CineBitch, a film and discussion series in which screenings of fondly remembered classics (9 to 5) and vital, current documentaries (The Invisible War) are paired with talks from local advocacy organizations. Elsewhere, online shop BitchMart offers the first in an ongoing series of “Adventures in Feministory” drinkware, sets of four sturdy mugs featuring portraits of groundbreaking female leaders.
2013: At the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, Bitch introduces Bitch on Campus, a campus program designed to bring Bitch material into college and high-school classrooms via custom readers, campus speakers, and more. Elsewhere in programming is the relaunch of the “Popaganda” podcast as a biweekly radio program hosted by Bitch’s new Online Editor, former Mercury reporter Sarah Mirk. (The show is quickly picked up by brand-new Portland radio station XRAY.fm.) Besides Sarah, there’s another new addition to the staff: Amanda Green, who replaces Brian Frank as Finance and Administration Director. 2013 is a banner year for partnerships: Bitch joins with Planned Parenthood of Columbia Willamette to present a multimedia panel discussion called “Reproductive Rights and Wrongs.” Bestselling Wild author and Bitch reader Cheryl Strayed writes a fundraising letter on Bitch’s behalf, bringing awareness of the organization’s existence to an entirely new demographic of readers. Local filmmakers and former board member Dawn Jones produces a music video with the staff, contributors, and volunteers of Bitch. And the female-owned Full Sail brewery, as part of its Brewer’s Share experimental program, brews a beer in honor of Bitch and donates part of the proceeds. (Even better: The beer, an Imperial Cascadian Dark Ale, is delicious.) Finally, Bitch launches the Action Fund, a new avenue by which donors can directly increase Bitch’s engagement with infrastructure-building technology.